Inside Gaza’s kitchens, a cookbook about food and life in the strip

Standing at the busy kitchen of the co-author of the Gaza Kitchen cookbook Maggie Schmitt, we prepare together Kefta (ground meat mixed with bread, spices and onions). She crushes the dill and hot chilli pepper craftily in a Gazan zibdiye (a heavy unglazed clay bowl, accompanied by a lemonwood pestle) that she admits has become one of her most precious kitchen items. I slice the tomatoes and onions while her 1-year-old son, curious, takes a taste from the Tahina (sesame paste) and squirms. Being from Gazan origin myself, this is not the first time I prepare Kefta and other Arab dishes. However growing up in the diaspora, I never found the Gazan recipes that my father so affectionately remembers from his childhood in the strip, so when I first heard about the Gaza Kitchen cookbook, I didn’t think twice before buying it.

Gaza Kitchen cookbook _ photo by Hala Muhanna

Gaza Kitchen cookbook _ photo by Hala Muhanna

With the aim of not letting the rich food heritage of Gaza disappear with the political conflict that burdens the strip, Gazan author and activist Leila El-Haddad and Schmitt teamed up to document its cuisine in the 600 page cookbook. Between the kefta and the exotic roasted watermelon salad, the book recounts stories of daily household economy under the siege and electricity cuts and most importantly gives faces and names to Gazans often represented in the media as numbers in the fight between Hamas and Israel.

The authors shifted their focus from the famous falafel and hummus to home cuisine, the many Gazan dishes that have been passed from generation to generation, never written down, and are now disappearing with the 48 generation. Armed with a camera and a notebook, they roamed the strip and cooked together with women from the urban and rural parts of Gaza, they visited refugee camps and Christian families and noted down exotic recipes like Arugula soup, Rumaniyya (sour lentil and eggplant) and roasted tomatoe and kishik (fermented wheat) stew.

Used to being interviewed about nothing else but politics, Schmitt´s questions took Gazans by surprise. “We told them, no, no… all we want to know is how your grandmother used to prepare the Rumaniyya,”  Schmitt passionately recounts. The authors were overwhelmed with invitations for lunch and dinner.

While the Gazan cuisine is as varied as the habitants of the strip, they are all characterized by the generous use of spices and dill, the chefs´ fastidiousness and the healthy diet of vegetables and legumes. Indeed, celeb chéf´s like America´s Anthony Bourdain called it “An important book on an egregiously under appreciated, under-reported area of gastronomy. This is old school in the best possible meaning of the term.” while the jury of the Gourmand International Cookbook Awards at the International Cookbook Fair in Paris named The Gaza Kitchen the Best Arab Cookbook of 2013.

“We didn´t use chilli that often,” my father comments on the recipes. There is a reason to that. With the economical hardships Gazans face under the siege imposed on them since the election of Hamas in 2006,  the nutritionally rich and fast growing chilli peppers proved a viable and inexpensive product as it requires little irrigation. Indeed, for many of the poorest Gazans´s children, their lunch at school is limited to a flifil ma67un (smashed hot chili pepper) sandwich.

More than a simple cookbook, Gaza Kitchen starts from the everyday household economy and connects it to bigger political, economic, social and geopolitical questions. It sheds light on the active de-development of Gaza and Isreal´s policy of turning it from a productive economy to a dependent one through controlling import and banning factory components, machines and raw materials like cement from entering the strip. The ongoing blockade also left limited possibility for export which caused the strip´s private sector to collapse.

As a result, many Gazan´s turned to farming. Families also revived the use of clay ovens, traditional methods of cooking and conserving foods that my father remembers from his childhood in order to survive the persistent electricity cuts due to Isreal´s bombing of the strip´s sole power plant in 2006 and its ban on the import of machines and raw materials to rebuild it.

The ban on the import of sesame also changed the local tastes as Gazans are no longer able to produce red Tahina, a Gazan delicacy of roasted sesame paste that they invented. Zaatar (a spice blend of dried herbs, mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt and other spices) popular all over the levant as a Palestinian delicacy) also disappeared from the tables of Gazans as Israel declared it a protected species and banned harvesting it.

Life in the strip might not be easy but make no mistake, this is not a Gazan sob story. In Schmitt and El-Haddad´s cookbook we are invited to the busy kitchens of strong cheerful women, giggling children and grandmas recounting old love stories. The cookbook also lightly touches upon social issues in the strip such as polygamy and women´s right to education and work in Gaza´s conservative circles. Avoiding big political questions, the authors tell the personal stories of the individual women just having lives buffeted by the circumstances of history and document the specific material details of their everyday life that few people in Europe know.

“We wanted to focus on ordinary people and especially women and just see how you live through these insane circumstances and maintain basically your humanity and your sense of humor and your ability to take care of your kids and be a normal person,” Schmitt explains.  “Our aim was to give a sense of having gone to someone´s house and had dinner because if you share someone´s table and you know a little bit about their life and you meet their kid then you cannot in good conscience vote for policies that would bomb them and wipe them off the face of the earth. It´s just a basic strategy of humanizing.”

More about the book on its official webpage.

Review of ’Arous Amman, a novel by Jordanian writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout

’Arous Amman (Amman’s bride), a controversial book in both its form and content

Book cover of 'Arous Amman

Book cover of ‘Arous Amman

In an interview on Roya Jordanian TV channel with writer and blogger Fadi Zaghmout, the presenter referred to a gay character in Zaghmout’s novel ’Arous Amman as shaz (an offensive term to describe gays, similar to faggot). „Muthley,” Zaghmout corrected her using a politically correct word for “homosexual”. By the end of the interview, the presenter was using „LGBT-friendly language”.

More than a literary work, Zaghomout’s first novel ’Arous Amman is an activism work advocating women rights and sexual liberties in the conservative Jordanian society. The novel is based on  a collection of short stories, film scripts and blog posts that Zaghmout published on his popular blog. The blog had 118,745 subscribers at the time of publishing this review.

What makes Zaghmout’s blog-turned-into-novel stand out is that it not only tackles some of the major taboos in Jordanian society like domestic rape, inter-religious marriages, sex out-of-wedlock which are often covered in contemporary literature, but it also raises other sensitive issues that are less talked about like LGBT rights and the sexual rights of women who were tricked into marrying homosexual men to hide the husband’s sexual orientation. What also makes it unique is that it is one of the few Arab feminist novels written by a man. Perhaps this is also why it is one of the few novels that don’t crucify men and blame them solely for the plight of women in the Arab world. Rather, Zaghmout presents them as loving fathers and supportive husbands and sometimes even victims of the patriarchal society just like women, blaming women rights violations in the Arab world on the patriarchal upbringing, ignorance and social pressure among others. It is also one of the few feminist novels I read that managed to walk the fine line between creating sympathy for its violated women and LGBT characters and being too depressive. In his novel, Zaghmout does not only showcase the problems that Jordanian women and LGBTs face, but also explains the mentality behind it.

The form and language of ’Arous Amman is no less controversial than its content. It is made up of a series of monologues and reflections by its main characters: 4 women and a homosexual man with very little dialogue. If this sounds daunting, it isn’t. Zaghmout divided his novel into short, blog like sections written in a simple language often using colloquial words which made it easy to read and accessible for a wider audience. While the style he adopted definitely helps in spreading his advocacy message, it triggered heated debates among the more traditional Jordanian intellectuals who call for elitist literature written in pure fusha (literary Arabic language).

Rather than its simple language and form, which I personally found suitable for the message that the novel conveys, what I didn’t like in ’Arous Amman is its romantic ’everyone lived happily ever after’ ending because it lies in contrast with the story’s serious and sometimes even tragic tone. To avoid including spoilers here… it just wasn’t convincing!

’Arous Amman is definitely a good choice if you are a foreigner interested in better understanding the psychology behind women and LGBT rights violations in the Arab world. While the novel might offer little new information for Arab readers, its power lies in challenging the traditional mindset of Arab societies and being brave enough to call social prejudices and atrocities by the name.

Review of El Sicario by Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi

El Sicario by Gianfranco Rosi

Let’s face it! A film shot in a small motel room with a single character who delivers an 80 minutes long monologue while his head is covered with a black sack does not sound like an exciting thing to watch! Yet behind this extremely boring scene lies an extraordinary story of assassination, torture and redemption. Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi gains rare access to an assassin for the Juarez drug cartels in Mexico. With the help of a pen and a sketch book, the assassin reveals the secrets of drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States.  El Sicario (the hit man) draws how he got involved in drug trafficking, acts how he held and tortured his victims in the small motel room and falls down on his knees as he recalls his moment of redemption; an exceptional journey in the psyche of an extraordinary character who manages to capture your attention without looking you in the eye. If you are fond of Mafia stories then El Sicario is the film for you.  But for those who, like me, are not too keen on such anecdotes, you might find it a bit too long.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX international documentary film festival’s gazette. 

Review of Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al-Massad’s film “This is My Picture When I Was Dead”

"This is My Picture When I Was Dead" by Mahmoud al-Massad

Father and 4 year-old son are giggling in a car’s front seat. At a red light, masked motorcyclist fires bullets into the car and both father and son are declared dead. Yet, three hours later, the little one is miraculously brought back to life. The father is PLO fighter Mamoun Mraish who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1983.  Jordanian filmmaker Mahmoud al-Massad follows the life of Mraish’s now 32 year-old son Bashir who is following in the footsteps of his father. However, instead of taking up arms, Bashir paints political caricatures.

A touching film story with a title (This is my picture when I was dead) that grabs you by the collar and brings you into the cinema. The stunning opening scene – a video of Israel’s phosphorus bombs lighting the sky of Gaza like fireworks accompanied by an ironic Christmas song- will glue your eyes to the screen.

Yet your initial enthusiasm for the beautifully shot film might be soon dampened. Massad does not delve into Bashir’s character. He gives us little more than what anyone of us might get in a polite chit chat with the man in a formal meeting.  Massad also chooses to go through key events in Mamoun and Palestine’s history, yet deters from giving us more than snapshots that would probably leave viewers who are less familiar with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict confused.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX international documentary film festival’s gazette. 

Review of Chemo and Albert’s Winter by filmmakers Pawel Lozinsk and Andreas Koefoed

Chemo by Pawel Lozinsk

“Am afraid of chemotherapy, even more than cancer!” says one of the cancer patients in Polish filmmaker Pawel Lozinsk’s film Chemo.  Two films in DOX BOX 2011’s film selection, Chemo and Albert’s Winter, revolve around the same theme: cancer. However each looks at it from a different perspective. In Chemo, Lozinsk takes us in a tour in the chemotherapy ward of an oncology clinic. Yet, we never get to see the place itself. Instead, his camera zooms in on the patients as they chat about chemotherapy with the ease of a couple who are discussing the rising prices in a souk. “When you get cancer, you must love it like an unwanted child,” a patient tells her roommate. Together, they joke about cancer, complain to each other and sometimes break into tears.

At some point Lozinsk’s excessive use of close ups becomes suffocating. The window shots that he takes every now and then only serve to further emphasize the sense of being trapped.  He only uses a wide shot when patients leave the ward at the end of the film. Ah… what a relief!

Albert's Winter

In Albert’s Winter, on the other hand, Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed observes cancer through the eyes of eight year-old Albert whose mother is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. The beautifully shot film is relaxed and tender. The filmmaker takes a step back and observes Albert just like the little kid is observing his mother’s illness. Koefoed beautifully reflects the child’s inner sense of insecurity, sadness and struggle to accept his mother’s illness through the snow scenes. A deeply touching film.

This review was published in Point of View, DOX BOX documentary film festival’s gazette.

Review of How Bitter My Sweet! by Mohammed Soueid, Lebanon/UAE

A friend once told me that the Lebanese are absurd people; they all love Lebanon but hate each other. Reading the title of Lebanese filmmaker Mohamed Soueid’s film Bahibbak ya wahesh (How Bitter my Sweet!) – which literally translates into “I love you, you monster” – brought that comment back to my mind.

In his film, Soueid introduces six very colourful and varied characters from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Sudan who only have two things in common: they all live in Lebanon and none of them are particularly happy!

Through their stories, Soueid sheds light on Lebanese society, its political turmoil and relationship with its neighbours and foreign immigrants. It gives very little background information though, so unless you are familiar with Lebanon’s political and social ups and downs, How Bitter my Sweet! is likely to leave you a bit confused.

Soueid organized the content of his interviews in several thematic sections. He then randomly marked these sections with sometimes functional and at other times creative titles like Knock Knock in contrast with Neighborhood and On the Road. While this gives a reportage feel to the film, it also allows the viewers to listen to decide for themselves what they think.

While How Bitter my Sweet! offers little new information, it is a good discussion generator, so if you choose to attend its screening at the Abu Dhabi film festival make sure not to miss the Q&A session.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA

Review of Jane’s Journey By Lorenz Knauer, Germany

Jane Goodall might be very famous in the West, but in Abu Dhabi “Jane who?” is the most common answer you get when inviting anyone to attend Lorenz Knauer’s film about the British activist. That’s why screening Jane’s Journey at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival is particularly important.

The film follows the life of Goodall, her transformation from a chimpanzee expert to environmental, human and animal rights activist, and her landmark achievements in these fields. Jane’s Journey is beautifully shot, with great humour and such amazing sound recording that you almost feel the animals sitting right next to you. All the typical documentary film elements are there: old photos, home video footages, testimonies of family and friends.

The film, however, doesn’t delve into Goodall’s personality. Instead, it represents a well-polished, almost idealistic image of the United Nations Messenger of Peace. It’s probably best described as a curriculum vitae of her achievements, with a very well-done cover letter and great references. This might not be very interesting for western audiences already familiar with Goodall’s projects, but for a distant audience like that of the Middle East, this film is an entertaining, informative and efficient account of a great activist’s journey.

This review was published in Nisimazine Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi film festival’s daily bulletin by NISI MASA.